When the newspaper she worked for closed in 2015, journalist Emily Guendelsberger used the opportunity to pursue a project she’d long been interested in. Over the next two years she worked in some of America’s common, controversial low-wage jobs to see what conditions were like, how they affected workers physically and psychologically, and if living on the incomes was possible. She makes some rules: she wouldn’t hide her journalism experience or anything about her background, and if asked about them or her motivations, she wouldn’t lie. She was never asked.
It’s a followup of sorts to Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 Nickel and Dimed, updated for the era of workplace technological advancements intended to increase efficiency and worker productivity but without consideration for human workers. While corporations eagerly await total automation, jobs like these want people who can work like robots, with “as few needs outside of work as robots”. They structure them accordingly, with few breaks or sympathy for issues like sickness, deaths, childcare, physical limitations, or the need for scheduling flexibility.
Guendelsberger lacks the sociological background Ehrenreich brought to her project, but she makes up for it with wit, powerful observations, and well-incorporated research that explores ideas from Henry Ford, with his assembly-line structure still influencing Amazon and McDonald’s today; and Frederick Taylor, whose analysis of timing and productivity led to the micromanagement and efficiency calculations utilized by the companies she worked for.
Her first stop is an Amazon fulfillment center in Indiana, just across the border from Kentucky. She notes many rumors around conditions here, but “everything written about Amazon’s blue-collar workers comes from a very small amount of original reporting.” She gets a job as a picker, which requires walking 15-20 miles a day in a mind-numbingly unstimulating atmosphere. It’s physically painful and Amazon’s attitude towards workers and their basic needs, including bathroom breaks, is that they’re disposable temps until machines can take over, basically.
The way Guendelsberger processes information is not only entertaining but powerfully effective. While watching The Muppet Christmas Carol with the family hosting her during her Amazon stint, she observes, “Scrooge literally has a better time-off policy than Amazon.”
Her next stint is at Convergys, a call center conglomerate in North Carolina, where she trained as a customer service rep for AT&T. The stress of the job was immense, and breaks inadequate for dealing with the emotional and psychological torture that accompanies being harangued by customers. A colleague explains that “the stress of her job caused her to develop digestive problems. ‘Even though I went to the doctor and brought a note explaining what was wrong, my supervisor still insisted on following me into the bathroom to ‘make sure’ I really did have diarrhea every single time’… She would stand outside the stall door and listen to me shit.'”
Last is a busy McDonald’s in downtown San Francisco, where even a raised hourly rate isn’t enough to live in one of America’s most expensive cities. Here she endures injuries in addition to abusive customers — some known for getting physical, including with hot coffee. At each location she works diligently until reaching her breaking point, and portrays her coworkers and their conditions sympathetically. Their lives and reasons for taking or sticking with jobs are revealing — most have families to support, are attending school, recovering from addiction, one even attempts home dental surgery — twice — since she can’t afford an ER visit or time off work. It is grim.
An argument will certainly arise that Guendelsberger is privileged to pursue this experiment and walk away. I think she handled this as best she could. She acknowledges her privilege in education, a dual-income marriage, and lack of children, all of which means she can leave when others are trapped.
But for one, there was a greater cause in that she’s delivering a strong message by giving a well-documented insider look and placing her experiences, and those of her coworkers, in the context of technological advancement — how micromanagement and efficiency technology have been leading to this and will only get worse unless we refuse to continue down this path.
Second, she argues that no one deserves this, regardless of whether they can afford to walk away or not, that we all have to demand better regardless of circumstances. Although there aren’t many suggestions for improvement beyond that — just that we must reject rock-bottom standards and demand higher ones across the board.
God, you’re so spoiled, I think to myself, feeling worse than ever. You don’t have any real responsibilities…not like everyone else here. You never learned to control your temper because you’ve never really had to.
But that tiny, furious voice hisses, No! That’s bullshit! Nobody should have to trade her last scrap of dignity for her family. This isn’t how things should be. This isn’t right.
She complains about commute times, which are usually ~45 minutes. That’s been typical, perhaps even low, in the major cities I’ve worked in. She laments having to budget time into her commute for traffic or public transportation delays and needing to be at work a few minutes earlier than shifts started. That seems pretty par for the course with most jobs. Her newspaper work was flexible, but I’ve found that lateness is generally a big issue most places. Griping about “unpaid minutes of padding” doesn’t feel as relevant as other objectively awful conditions, although her complaints about frustratingly short break times and draconian penalties for lateness were well-founded. The conditions around doing anything wrong at one of these jobs are all draconian, really, and often catch-22s.
Insightful, detailed, and makes quite an impact. It feels exhausting to consider where we can go from here, but calling this out is an important start and this book is an incendiary conversation starter. 4/5
On the Clock:
What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How it Drives America Insane
by Emily Guendelsberger
published July 16, 2019 by Little, Brown